Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño
As I may or may not have mentioned before, the hard-boiled and pulp crime forms of fiction are ones I’ve read mostly in self-consciously stylised appropriations and knowing farces of their original forms, or that I’ve seen rather than read in adaptations to, or approximations within, the comics or cinematic media. Despite their detractors, and more damagingly the vast amounts of hackwork and pablum being put out which aspires to be them, I think they are amongst the most malleable and human of genres. They both work by the themes of greed; both economic, acquisitionist and hedonic, intrigue; the obsessive curiosity and need to pick away at mysteries, and the kicking back against the limits of the social contract. All of which, concerning and characterising some of the best and worst motivations driving human behaviour and interactions, have been staples of drama since our earliest attempts and efforts.
These are the themes and the qualities which are brought into Monsieur Pain as Bolaño’s typically stark lyrical prosody, which unobtrusively reminds us that we are in the hands of a poet as well as a novelist, is infused with the essence of its more stylised hard-boiled predecessors. The predominantly structural similarities, rather than merely borrowed trappings, bring the story down to a less fantastical level than other works in Bolaño’s oeuvre, heightening the book’s disquieting moments and characters in a manner which lovingly purloins the flavour of Kafka or Poe as much as it does those of Hamett or Chandler. There are certain moments though, key lines of dialogue and description phrased just so and developments which are telegraphed to those familiar with the assumed genres standards, where the creative and critical provenances of the book are seen in stark relief to its usually more naked prose.
Monsieur Pain is a single-sitting read, and not just because of its relative brevity, but because of its commitment to a compelling and focused narrative. Where The Savage Detectives followed a myriad of paths to reach its version of a dénouement and where Nazi Literature in the Americas took this idea of a world created through a tapestry of stories to its apotheosis, Monsieur Pain brings the focus right back on its eponymous lead, of whom “mark” or “victim” might be a more accurate description. The book speaks in his voice and of his direct experience as he falls inadvertently into the throes of the mild intrigue and borderline-surreal occurrences which follow. These, along with the acute attention to detail and a series of constantly compounding questions, would lend some credence to the idea that one was reading a hard-boiled novel but in most other ways such literary conventions are ignored.
Pain, a mesmerist and acupuncturist, never even fleetingly gets, the upper hand over the events aligned against him and in fact never clearly establishes that those who seem to be conspiring against him are anything more than an oblique joke. In addition the betrayals of the friend and the femme fatale are undercut formerly by Pain himself becoming, through an atypically callous act, the betrayer and latterly when the femme fatale proves to be a naïf, the hurts she inflicts on him caused by her unwaveringly high regard, which is nonetheless not enough for him. But the final blow to the appropriation of style, that feature that finally sheds that useful artifice and reveals Monsieur Pain to be a work which uses a familiar form to explore something on the vaguest peripheries of its usual concerns, are the concluding biographies of the book’s unhappy cast which only add to the already unsolved mysteries.